Imagine a natural elixir with the power to lower LDLs (bad cholesterol), elevate HDLs (the good kind), and enhance the flavor of just about any food. If you have olive oil in your cupboard, you don't need to imagine -- this remarkable ingredient has been working its magic already.
While nutrition experts advise us to continue to be conscientious about total fat intake, current evidence suggests it's the type of fat we eat that has the most influence on our coronary health. Out of a crowded field of good and bad dietary fats, then, which to choose?
"That would be one that's unsaturated," says Kathy McManus, M.S., R.D., director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "And olive oil, being monounsaturated, is very healthy."
Unsaturated fats, which encompass mono- and polyunsaturated fats, have several benefits. In addition to lowering bad cholesterol, they prevent an increase of triglycerides, a fat in the bloodstream linked with heart disease. They also help to prevent an erratic heartbeat and reduce the risk of arterial blood clots.
When nutritionists contrast this record with the artery-clogging one of saturated fats (plentiful in red meat and butter) and the more dangerous trans fats (think fried and fast foods, commercially prepared baked goods, and some margarines), they urge us to replace them with healthful fats.
Polyunsaturated oils, such as soybean and corn oils, are also smart choices. But none can touch olive oil's versatility or extraordinary flavor. In the recipes that follow, olive oil makes whole-wheat pasta seem seductive and gives polenta-and-spinach soup a rich, fruity flavor. It grants salad dressing a guilt-free pass and provides rosemary bread with a heart-healthy component.
Looks like when it comes to fat, extending the olive branch is a great idea.
Reading the Label
With a bottle of olive oil comes a new vocabulary. The most important terms denote the grade. Nutritionally, there is little difference between grades -- flavor is where you'll notice distinctions. The best-tasting is extra virgin, ideal for dressings and drizzling. Because it costs more and can lose flavor when heated, some prefer to saute with virgin oil (the next grade down) or plain olive oil. The latter is a mix of chemically refined and virgin or extra-virgin oils; it is sometimes labeled light, but this refers to taste, not calories or fat.
You can ignore the terms first press and cold press -- they meant more before old production methods were updated, says Laura Fitzgerald, communications manager at Oliviers & Co., a purveyor of olive oils. The grade reveals more about flavor and quality.
Do You Know?
Olive oil is a good source of antioxidants such as vitamin E, which may help strengthen your immune system, as well as lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.